Free food. Just another thing to consider when selecting a residency program. I’m not saying this should be one of the top three factors guiding your ranking decisions but if you have no other way to differentiate programs, I’d go with the place where you can eat for free. If you think about it, you have the potential to drop some serious money on food during almost any residency. Not to mention that it is more convenient to grab a bite at the cafeteria than to brown bag two or three meals a day.
I eat most meals at the hospital. I didn’t last year because the administration at Duke are cheap bastards and the most they could cough up was a paltry six buck on-call meal allowance at their over-priced cafeteria.
I also drink a lot of Cherry Diet Coke (the official soft drink of Panda Bear, MD), probably six or seven a day, which could otherwise be a very expensive habit if I wasn’t getting them for free.
So don’t be embarrassed to ask about this when you interview. If the cafeteria has Starbucks or equivalent coffee then you have hit the jackpot.
Should you ask about call schedules when you interview or is this a sign of weakness?
Definitely ask, but ask the right people, preferably the residents and preferably at the pre-interview social event. Maybe you don’t want to seem pre-occupied with your free time when talking to the program director but, and trust me on this, by the first week of intern year almost every resident has lost whatever idealism they may have salvaged from medical school and they will perfectly understand your aversion to call and long hours.
Your call schedule will vary over the year. A standard call schedule is what is called “Q4” or every fourth night overnight call. “Q3” is not unheard of but it is difficult to stay in compliance on your hours with this kind of schedule. The surgery interns I worked with at duke were on “Q2” which meant that they did 24 hours on, 24 hours hours off. This doesn’t seem too bad but it will wear you out pretty quickly. Some more enlightened programs have Q5 or even Q6 call.
Intern year in most specialties is pretty standard as far as call is concerned. You will have a lot of call. Be sure to ask how many call months you have in the year. When I was at Duke last year I had eight months where I took call, mostly Q4. How much call you do as a PGY-2 and beyond is highly specialty dependent. Pathology, derm, and urology to name a few hardly do any in-house call after intern year and if they do, it is usually pretty benign. Medicine and Surgery, on the other hand, are call heavy for most of residency. Medicine call especially blows no matter what level resident you are.
So a good question to ask is how many call months you will take as an upper level resident. Personally, I would rank the programs highest that had the least call but that’s just me.
Also ask about night float. You want to go to a program that has night float as this usually means that the program has decided to make residency more pleasant by curtailing call, or at least making it less onerous. Generally, the night float is a resident who comes in after normal quitting time and leaves in the morning. It is a quasi-shift system as there may still be somebody on call. The night float, however, is supposed to do most of the admissions and handle most of the floor calls only waking up the on-call resident if things get really busy.
While doing cardiology at Duke, we had one week of the month on night float where we came in at seven PM and left at seven AM. Generally the on-call person got to sleep after midnight and the night float took care of business. The advantages of being on night float are legion and I would volunteer for it for all of intern year if I could. Some people don’t like it but I’ll trade vampire hours for not having to round, not having to present patients like a trained monkey, and not hanging around the hospital unsure of whether you can go home. The night float comes in, is relaxed and rested, does his job, and goes home in the morning. It is usually high quality training as you spend the night admitting patients, the key difference between this and being on call is that you are not too tired to give a rat’s ass.
A special warning about family practice residency training and something about which you should ask. Is family medicine more benign from a call point of view than, for example, medicine? Probably. But keep in mind two things. First of all, your program will likely have an inpatient service and you will pull call to admit and cover the Family Medicine patients who come to the hospital. The Family Medicine service is usually not as busy as the medicine service (unless you are at an unopposed program in which case you are the de facto medicine service) as they usually only takes bona fide family medicine patients who belong to your outpatient clinic.
I had a census of about 25 at any given time while doing pulmonary last month. The family medicine service has four or five.
A medicine service generally admits anybody from anywhere with various services taking their turn as “no doc” for the uninsured or unassigned patients.
Small or dying Family Medicine programs either have no inpatient service in which case you will spend a lot more time rotating on medicine services than you probably want to or they have home call where you can sleep at home, only coming in to admit patients. The medicine interns are usually called for overnight problems with these patients, either by formal arrangement or because the nurses know that it sometimes takes a Papal Bull to get a family medicine resident to come in. Some hospitals also don’t let Family Medicine admit or manage ICU patients which is probably another thing you need to ask about.
You will also have obstetric patients as family medicine resident and the custom is to call you in when your patient is in labor. This throws a whole new level of unpredictability into your life as you can be called in at any time to deliver one of your mothers. You will either be excited about this or you won’t but you’ve got to do it. You will also have to come in to admit your obstetric patients for other reasons besides labor. I like to think of it as having forty or fifty ticking time-bombs hidden around town any one of which can go off and ruin your weekend.
You know, sometimes when you’re managing real problems on the floor or admitting interesting and complex patients, call can almost be fun. Usually, however, it is just a grind. After you admit your fifteenth COPD exacerbation the thrill will be gone. So think about it before you rank programs.